CAESAREA, Israel — Multiple sclerosis survivor Michael Faibisch, 59, clearly remembers the day in August 2003 when his symptoms began.
The Maryland native, who’s lived in Israel since 1979, had started long-distance bicycling a year earlier to get back in shape. At the time, he weighed 130 kilograms (287 pounds) and was an emotional wreck.
“I was going through an incredibly difficult divorce from my ex-wife,” said Faibisch, who eventually became estranged from most of his 7 children.
One morning, Faibisch was riding his bike from Modi’in to his home in Giv’at Zev, a suburb of Jerusalem. “I was grinding up the hill, barely making it, when I started to see blurry. I wiped my eyes but it didn’t go away,” he said. “I washed my face, wiped my eyes again — and it didn’t go away. I got up the next morning to get to work, and it still didn’t go away.”
Driving to his office, Faibisch started experiencing dizziness and vertigo. He called his doctor, who believed Faibisch had suffered a stroke and ordered him to go straight to Jerusalem’s Hadassah Medical Center. An MRI was ordered, and within a week, the symptoms went away and Faibisch felt OK.
Soon after, a brown envelope arrived in the mail from Hadassah’s radiology department, coldly informing Faibisch that he had “clinical findings consistent with a demyelinating disease.”
“At that time, I didn’t know what MS was,” said the patent attorney, who was found to have relapsing-remitting multiple sclerosis (RRMS). “It wasn’t even on my radar.”
According to the Tel Aviv-based Israel Multiple Sclerosis Society, about 5000 of Israel’s 9.2 million inhabitants have the disease. Two-thirds of them are women, 35% are native Russian speakers, 15% are Arabs, 8% are ultra-Orthodox Jews and 4% are people under 18.
“I cannot point to any single thing that made a difference, but I think one of the keys to successfully managing any serious disease is to attack it on all fronts,” said Faibisch, interviewed at home in Caesarea — an ancient coastal town on the Mediterranean — with his wife, Pamela, at his side.
Soon after the initial scare, Faibisch said, one side of his face went numb — and then the numbness went away as quickly as it had come. “No one, including myself, made the connection that this was related to the fact that I had blurry vision,” he said.
Shortly before the Jewish holiday of Sukkot, Faibisch completed the Trans Israel Road Cycling Challenge, a 550-kilometer course that traverses the entire length of Israel, from Rosh HaNikra on the Lebanese border south to Eilat, on the Red Sea. It was after that adventure — and several months before a trip he had planned to the world-famous Tour de France — that Faibisch ended up back in the hospital.
“I was given a spinal tap and another MRI. Not only did this confirm MS, but also that I was in the midst of a relapse,” he said. “The brain lesions were shining bright. I was hospitalized for almost 10 days, spending my entire Passover in the hospital. And the steroids couldn’t get it under control.”
It was at that point, Faibisch said, that he decided to cut all sugar and salt from his diet. He later eliminated red meat and vowed to increase his workouts.
“At that time, the clinical requirement for MS was that you had to have 2 MRIs that were consistent with MS [in order] to reach a definitive diagnosis,” he said. But after discovering that Faibisch had spent a year in New Haven, Connecticut while studying at Yale, his doctor needed to make sure it wasn’t Lyme disease, which is endemic throughout New England.
“They did not want to put me on any kind of medication for MS until they ruled out everything else,” Faibisch said. Once Lyme disease had been eliminated as a possibility in 2003, Faibisch’s neurologist recommended that he start on interferon beta-1a (Avonex), a once-a-week injection specifically for patients with RRMS. He began the treatment at Sheba Medical Center, just outside Tel Aviv, which today houses Israel’s National Multiple Sclerosis Center, the country’s first dedicated clinic for MS patients.
In clinical studies before the drug’s approval, patients taking interferon beta-1a were 37% less likely to have increased disability after 2 years, compared to those on placebo. In addition, those on the therapy saw a 32% drop in relapses and a 75% reduction in brain lesions.
“Did Avonex help? Absolutely,” he said. “The whole objective of treating MS when you have RRMS is to reduce the severity and frequency of your relapses. I only had one relapse, the year after I started Avonex. I took it every single week, never missing a shot. I would shoot myself up wherever I was going.”
But after 8 years on the medication, Faibisch — who by then was pedaling hundreds of kilometers a week and had lost 45 kilograms (100 pounds) — decided he had had enough.
“The side effects were making me feel like I had the flu. The day after taking it, I would feel no motivation,” Faibisch said. “My doctor said I’d be crazy to stop taking my Avonex, but I told him ‘I think I’ve got it under control and I’m willing to take that chance.’”
Eventually, his physician reluctantly agreed, telling Faibisch: “If ever I had a patient who could do this, it’s you.”
It’s been 10 years since he stopped taking the treatment. And upon reaching the 10th anniversary since his last relapse, Faibisch decided to celebrate by embarking on a 3138-mile, 33-day bicycle trip from Costa Mesa, California, to Salisbury Beach, Massachusetts.
“Last year, I convinced my doctor to give me a note which says I have ‘No Evidence of Disease Activity,’ or NEDA,” said Faibisch, proudly showing off the NEDA acronym engraved into the titanium frame of his custom-made Italian bicycle.
“The emotional component in progression of my MS was a crucial part,” he said, extolling the benefits of endorphins released through exercise. “It’s about constantly setting challenges for yourself, which is not for everybody.”
Faibisch won’t go as far as saying he’s cured of the disease, though his NEDA designation was apparently enough for his life insurance company to stop charging a premium for having MS. And some symptoms of MS have never left him. For example, he said, “almost all the time, I feel like my forearm right is wrapped in a tourniquet. And I lose my balance when I’m stressed out.”
Faibisch adheres to a Mediterranean diet, which is heavy on vegetables and fish; he avoids red meat, sugar, and empty calories — all things he used to consume in his pre-MS days.
“I was never a lightweight, but there were tremendous imbalances in my life at that time,” he said. “I ended up getting so heavy because of those imbalances.”
Asked if he has advice for others with the disease, Faibisch replied simply: “When you get diagnosed with MS, realize that it’s not the end of your life.”